Study: Dessert with meals may help kids eat fewer calories

Did you ever wish your parent let you eat your cake alongside your broccoli? Child eating cookieA small study published in the journal Appetite this week reported that preschool children might actually eat fewer calories when dessert is served right alongside their meal instead of afterwards.

The study out of Purdue University measured how the timing of dessert made a difference in how much lunch 23 chidren ate. Half of the 2-5 year old children were served a chocolate chip cookie alongside their lunch on Thursdays and Fridays while the other half received their dessert after their lunch plates were cleared. Eight weeks later, they switched groups. Thursday’s lunch entrée was fish and Friday was pasta, two favorites of this primarily Asian and Caucasian group of children.

Accounting for age, room, menu rotation, type of meal, and presence of morning snack, researchers found that children consumed 9% more calories overall when the cookie was served after lunch trays were cleared.

Portion size was also addressed by rotating in 50% larger portions of entrée, vegetable and fruit at certain meals, but surprisingly portion size was not found to factor into total calorie intake. The authors surmised that the results might be because the kids served dessert at the same time as lunch filled up sooner and chose to eat less food overall.

Despite the small size of this study, the authors make a case for the need for continued research to learn how moms, dads and caretakers can help instill lifelong healthy eating habits in our kids.

The number of obese children in the United States has doubled since 1980 according to government data, with one in three kids now considered overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight at such a young age makes a child more likely to grow up to be obese as an adult. This in turn increases their risk of many types of cancer and other chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke and osteoarthritis.

What about the argument that serving dessert with a meal will lead children to eat their dessert first, leaving less room for more nutritious items?  The new study focused on total calories, not nutrients, so this question cannot be answered by the current study.  Future attempts to study timing of dessert should also address intake of healthful foods like fruits and vegetables and important nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin C to address the common concern from parents that their kids are eating enough of the right foods.

What do you think of serving your child dessert alongside his or her meal?

Arissa Anderson is an MPH/RD candidate from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and dietetic intern with the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Connect with Arissa on Twitter @ArissaAnderson.


4 thoughts on “Study: Dessert with meals may help kids eat fewer calories

  1. Healthy desserts made from fruit are fine anytime! We make soft serve “ice cream” from frozen bananas in our Yonanas machine, bake yummy banana oat bars without added sugar, make homemade strawberry applesauce, or serve fresh raspberries in a cantaloupe half. These desserts can be offered along with the meal and it doesn’t matter if they eat dessert first because it’s all healthy food. Why offer unhealthy desserts when there are so many healthy ones?

  2. I think it is a great idea! So many people get full from dinner, and yet dessert is so tantalizing that we stuff it down, even though we are full. And it makes sense if you are going to have dessert at a restaurant, to have it first. The meal portions are always huge, and it is good to have a “doggie bag” from dinner (so you are not eating it all) main meals tend to be better the next day/transport better than desserts.
    I eat less when I have “dessert” first, or can at least plan for dessert (instead of having it sprung on me after dinner).

    • Thanks for your comments! Like your idea of consciously planning for dessert. Perhaps this might also reduce the perception of dessert as “reward”?

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